Canada and China, a rapidly evolving relationship: Sears

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau introduces Chinese Premier Li Keqiang after speaking to a business luncheon in Montreal last September.  (Ryan Remiorz / THE CANADIAN PRESS)  

It’s often small signals that reveal massive changes taking place just beneath the surface in a community. On a whirlwind trip to China, several cues to developing trends stopped me in my tracks. Having been a visitor for almost 35 years, I have had my nose to the glass at China’s transformation from impoverished agricultural police state to global economic superstar on many occasions.

On this trip three things hit me.

  • The interplay of forces in politics, the economy, and the role of the Chinese citizen is far more nuanced and hopeful than the silly Cold War rhetoric of some Canadian journalists would lead one to believe.
  • The transformation from copycat cheap-labour polluting industrial giant to 21st century innovation leader is accelerating.
  • The sophistication of China’s evolving role on the global stage and in its bilateral relations with G20 nations cannot fail to impress in terms of pure self-interested statesmanship.

Canada’s relationship with this always-confounding people and culture is rapidly evolving, but we are struggling to keep up with the changes.

On China as an innovation leader my cue was, strangely, the Shanghai Auto show. Chinese manufacturers presented 56 concept cars — all electric and many self-driving. A decade ago there were a few laughable Chinese efforts. China is an emerging world leader in electric autonomous vehicles.

Historically, China’s service reputation has been closer to that of the U.K. — that is, the customer is always wrong — than to the rest of Asia. Today, the animated digital maps, flawless English announcements, and helpful staff on the Beijing and Shanghai subway systems would make a TTC executive blush.

China’s mobile payments infrastructure is growing faster than any in the world — consumers search, pay for and track delivery of everything from food to major appliance purchases in the local version of Twitter by the tens of millions daily. The service is reportedly impeccable.

Those journalists who see China through a 1960s Cold War lens on policing, law, and civil society have either never seen a real Stalinist police state up close, or are merely promoting an agenda. Those who dismiss and sneer at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “romantic” engagement with the world’s emerging superpower are similarly just fools.

No, China is not a democracy. Yes, China’s approach to rights and to the sovereignty of the individual citizen are often deeply troubling, and certainly not ours. But the private, social, and civic space for the ordinary Chinese citizen is greater today than at any time in its history, and expanding. That is surely the more relevant test of progress than whether they have arrived at our level of expectations of rights and freedoms.

Trudeau is surely right in…

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